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Lessons from Chechnya’s Long History of Jihadism

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
July 2013


What do jihadists want? Simple: power. The power to impose their own extreme version of Shari'a law. But that is not what most Muslims want. For the most part they want the same things as non-Muslims: jobs, education, families, a higher standard of living, peace, and security. Therein lies both the power and the weakness of jihadist extremists: they are strong because they are motivated by religious certitude, but at the same time they are weak because their program is too austere to be popular when actually implemented even in traditional Muslim societies. If properly exploited by a skilled adversary, this weakness can turn out to be fatal.

Both the appeal and the limitations of jihadism have been evident in one of the longest-running guerrilla struggles of the past two centuries—the movement by the people of Chechnya, Dagestan, and other parts of the Northern Caucasus to free themselves from Russian imperial rule. The struggle started in the 18th century and continues into the 21st century. But it was in the 19th century that it produced its most notable personality—a forerunner of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi known simply as Shamil.

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